Chain of Command – Snippet 40

Chapter Twenty-One

31 December 2133 (later the same day) (tenth day in K’tok orbit)

Sam had finished his dinner and evening administrative work when he heard the chime at his cabin door. He turned the hatch transparent and was surprised to see Lieutenant Commander Delmar Huhn in the corridor.

“Sam, do you have moment?” Huhn said to the door, still an opaque gray on his side.

Sam’s first impulse was to say no, to plead pressing business, but his own orders to the crew had been to extend Huhn the courtesy and respect appropriate to his rank.

Fifth Principle of Naval Leadership: Set The Example

He released the hatch lock.

“Of course. Come in, Commander Huhn.”

Sam noticed he carried an oblong brown plastic or composite box under his arm, no more than twenty centimeters square and twice that in length.

Hope it’s not a bomb, the paranoid guy that lived in the dark back of his head thought.

Sam gestured to the two zero-gee “chairs”–actually padded torso frames–along one wall. Both men kicked gently off and glided over to them, Huhn from the hatchway and Sam from his workstation. Once they were tethered in, the silence stretched out until it became awkward, at least for Sam. Huhn seemed lost in his own thoughts. Finally he looked up.

“Once it was done and I had time to think, I figured I made an awful mistake, giving up command. I was always an ambitious man, but not …well, not crazy. Not unrealistic. Never thought I’d retire with an admiral’s star. Captain of a cruiser–that was the pinnacle of my ambition. Four broad stripes on my sleeve.”

“It must have been a difficult decision,” Sam said, although the words tasted trite to him as soon as he spoke them. Huhn looked at him for a moment but Sam could not read his expression. Huhn’s face seemed blank, as if the life had left him.

“Threw my future away,” Huhn said after a moment, and then he looked around the cabin he had briefly occupied. “No getting it back. Hated you for a while, for doing what I couldn’t. Still do, a little bit …hate you, I mean.”

Sam didn’t know what to say so he said nothing. He wished he’d poured them bulbs of coffee, water, something to keep his hands occupied.

“I’ve been reading about the Royal Navy,” Huhn said, “back in the olden days, the Age of Fighting Sail. Know much about it?”

Sam shook his head,

“The ships had contingents of Marines, for boarding actions and such, commanded by a sergeant or a lieutenant on the smaller ships. On the big ships of the line those marines were commanded by a captain. But onboard the ship he was always addressed as major. You know why?”

“No, why?”

“Because a ship can only have one captain.”

Huhn took the box from under his arm and handed it to Sam, who took it with a measure of reluctance. Gifts suggested obligations. An unknown gift carried an unknown burden of obligation. He opened the box and saw a bottle of bourbon.

“Booker Beam,” Huhn said. “Seven years old. About as good as it gets.”

“I don’t…”

“It’s not for you, Bitka. Not personally, anyway. It’s for the captain, in case you want to share a drink with your officers.”

Sam stared at the bottle, uncertain what he should say or do about this, uncertain in fact how he felt about it.

“Will you …will you have a drink with me, Commander Huhn?”

“Nope. I’m not one of the ship’s officers any more, just a passenger.” He unbuckled himself from the chair and Sam felt his face flush.

“I regret that remark, sir.”

“It was the truth, and it needed saying. Don’t be sorry for that. Besides, it means I don’t need permission to leave.”

He pushed off the wall and left the cabin.

Sam stared at the bottle of bourbon. What was going on in Huhn’s head? Was this gesture well-intended or ill? Did Huhn himself know? Sam shook his head.


“Back home we got an expression for a guy like Admiral Kayumati,” Moe Rice said with the careful enunciation characteristic both of his West Texas accent and of a drunk. “All hat, no cattle.”

Laughter flashed around the circle of officers, from Marina Filipenko’s bell-like tinkle to the loud guffaws of Rose Hennessey. The five of them–Sam and his four department heads–floated in Sam’s cabin and had been drinking the bottle of bourbon formerly belonging to Delmar Huhn.

The bourbon had been a small compensation–or at least a chance to unwind–for the officers after over seventy hours of near-continuous work and omnipresent tension, punctuated by the final horror of what happened to Champion Hill. Sam needed a drink himself, but didn’t like the idea of drinking alone. Besides, it was New Years Eve. He had stood the crew to a beer at mess, which slightly assuaged his sense of guilt at this exercise of exclusive privilege–slightly, but not entirely.

As the laughter faded, Sam was tempted to pass on Juanita Rivera’s final question in the briefing, knew it would find sympathetic ears here, especially now that she was gone, but he did not. Instead he thought he should reprimand Rice, shouldn’t let disrespectful talk like that about the chain of command–injurious to good order–go unchecked, but he just said, “Moe, maybe you’ve had one too many bourbons.”

Moe nodded. “Yup, that’s muh story and I’m stickin’ to it.” Then he grinned.

They all laughed, except Larry Goldjune.

“Go on, Rice, get drunk, play the clown,” he said. “You can afford to. Take a couple days off if you like. Nobody will even notice you’re gone.”

The laughter stopped and Moe’s face cleared, the drunkenness–or perhaps its pretense–gone.

“Mister Goldjune, if you have some duty I can assist your department with, I will be happy to do so. I will do whatever I can to help make this ship combat–”

Boat, Rice!” Goldjune interrupted him. “Christ, how long do you have to be on a destroyer before you learn it’s called a goddamned boat instead of–”

“That’s enough, Larry,” Sam said, and to his surprise Goldjune stopped talking and settled back. For a moment Sam hated Goldjune, wanted to push his sour ass out the nearest airlock. All Rice had been trying to do was take their minds off the last twelve hours, the last two days, the last week. Sam took a deep, slow breath and let it out.

“Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. I guess part of me thought we might bond under all this pressure, loosen up with some alcohol. Well, that doesn’t matter. You all worked your asses off the last couple days, and under lousy conditions. You earned a nightcap. So let’s finish our drinks, get some rest, and we’ll start again tomorrow.”

They drank in silence for a moment, and then Marina Filipenko spoke.

“Any progress on the jump drive scrambler, Larry?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he snapped.

Marina recoiled slightly, her eyes widening in surprise and distress.

“Take it easy, Larry,” Sam said. “She didn’t mean anything, except the jump drive scrambler’s on everybody’s mind. If we figure it out, we may have a handle on this whole mess.”

Goldjune looked down at his drink bulb, and for a moment Sam thought he was going to throw it against the bulkhead.

“No progress.”

Goldjune lifted his face and Sam looked at him, looked carefully, maybe for the first time, and under the anger and frustration and contempt, he saw something he had never seen before, although now that he thought about it, it must always have been there, back behind everything else. He saw fear.

They were all afraid. This was war, and a war they were losing, a war that was killing people at so alarming a rate that their own chances of survival seemed more remote by the day. Who wouldn’t be afraid? But Goldjune’s fear had always been there, hadn’t it? And what did Larry Goldjune, the son and nephew of admirals, the honors graduate of Annapolis, the officer clearly foreordained to wear stars on his shoulders one day, have to fear before the war?

“Okay, Larry, tomorrow put together a data dump with all the stats you think might be relevant and pass it to Hennessey. Rose, somebody in your engineering shop has to have pulled duty in a J-drive room. See if anything sets off an alarm with them and if so get it back to Larry. We’ve got to figure this thing out so our cruisers can back us up.”

“I think that fleet already sailed,” Larry said, again looking down at his drink. “Two days ago.”

“Bush league,” Moe Rice said after a while, staring down at his bourbon. They all looked at him but even Larry Goldjune said nothing. Moe raised his head and looked around at them. “I mean, I’m just a supply officer, right? But that’s how this feels to me: fucking bush league. We’re supposed to be the United States Navy and it’s like we can’t even get out of our own goddamned way. Every time we turn around those guys bitch-slap us. Our missiles don’t work right. We’ve been hanging around with the Varoki for a century and all of a sudden they’ve got weapons we’ve never heard of? How’d that get past us? Our mission is to support a ground force with orbital bombardment and so we pull every bombardment-capable ship out? Now all the admiral can figure to do is run away to some gas giant it’s just as easy for them to get to, but isn’t worth as much, so maybe they’ll leave him alone. Jesus fucking Christ!”

It was the longest, angriest speech Sam had ever heard Moe make, and he was right. He was right enough Sam felt his face burn with shame.

Marina Filipenko touched Moe’s arm and smiled softly. “If you didn’t know any better, you’d think we’d never been in an interstellar war before.”

Rose Hennessey nodded. “It is taking some getting used to.”

“Boy, howdy,” Moe said.

They looked at each other for a few moments and then finished their drinks in silence.